The Role of Stories and Safe Spaces in Our Work
“The idea this week is not to lecture or teach, but to experience.” – Sondos Shabayek, Workshop Facilitator
SAHR is a non-profit human rights organisation led by a global team of women with a mission to increase access to justice for women at the margins. We work in South Asia and the Middle East, bringing together expertise in human rights, law, academia and various forms of activism. The BuSSy Project is a Cairo-based performing arts initiative that documents and gives voice to censored, untold stories about gender in different communities.
Due to generous support from FRIDA, Shiva Foundation and Thomson Reuters Foundation in India, SAHR had the pleasure of hosting two members of the BuSSy Project in Mumbai where we conducted a five day workshop with our partners and peers. Hidden Pockets also participated in the workshop.
Just two weeks ago, 16 of us stood in an empty room to explore the use of storytelling in our work as women’s rights activists. This was the first time that BuSSy was conducting a workshop in India and the first time SAHR had held a workshop outside of our core work as experts in the law. This workshop represented a different part of our work – something that we call self advocacy. To us, self advocacy is about holding space for individuals and communities in contexts where empty spaces (space free of expectation) are not usually held. It is about asking why the voices of those at the margins are not heard as clearly as our own and understanding what role we can play in ensuring that these individuals have a chance to advocate for their own causes.
Participants of the workshop included lawyers, academics, social workers, therapists and journalists from across India, Singapore, U.K. and Afghanistan. Coming from fairly structured professions, we were intrigued; how could something as free-flowing as storytelling be joined up with something as structured as our work?
Before attending the workshop, we came in with the idea that they would learn about the different techniques and processes of documenting stories for our clients. Little did any of us know that in those five days each of us would don the hat of storyteller. By sharing our own experiences through stories, we left with a much greater sense of possibility about the power of storytelling for change.
One of the core learnings from this workshop was understanding the notion of a ‘safe space’ and how to create it. The idea being that the physical space (in this case, the room where the workshop was being held) would be a space where each of us could share our stories without those stories being taken out, without being judged and without expectation. In other words, a space where the storyteller knows that their stories are safe. As we learnt over the course of the workshop, creating a safe space is paramount in the process of story documentation since it enables a story-teller to trust the listener and share openly.
Several of the activities at the beginning of each day would be about building trust. Participants were not told that this was the aim of the exercises but, instead, they experienced the very act of building trust through participation. As the days progressed, we all eventually felt comfortable enough with the others in the room to share often deeply personal stories. Most of these exercises were simple and incorporated breathing, eye contact and games.
Creating a safe space also included some ground rules such as refraining from commenting or offering advice and practising empathy instead of sympathy when listening to another’s story. Before we knew it, we were peeling off our own layers in the safe space that we had created.
Sharing Our Stories
Throughout the workshop, every participant alternated between a storyteller (when sharing their individual stories) and listener (when listening to the stories of other participants). Each day would end with us sharing a story of our own. This included memories from school days, an experience of an incident on the street, a time we had asked someone not to leave and so on. Sometimes we simply told the story to a partner and other times we performed it as a small skit.
For me, one of the most powerful exercises that we did in the workshop was working in pairs. We shared our story with our partner who would then narrate it to the group in first person. Witnessing our stories being retold by another as though it had happened to them was an extremely powerful experience; I realised that my story which till now held meaning only for me, was actually a story worth sharing because of the impact which it had on a group of 15 others. I realised that no story was too trivial.
It was also powerful to feel that we did not have to do anything with our story. We could simply tell it. There was no need to use it for advocacy or a campaign. There was no need to add opinions or morals. It was transformative to simply share it and have others listen.
Role of Stories
Later in the week, we discussed the various forms of story documentation including comic strips, poetry, theatre, games, spoken word and more. We took inspiration from these but also began to understand how personal testimonies were the basis for all of them. We dove deeper into why personal testimonies (free of an agenda or goal) were key to capturing the reality of someone’s experience and how we could try our best to do that in our work.
Importantly, we also discussed the ethical concerns surrounding story-documentation including storyteller’s consent to have their stories shared/documented in a particular manner and our own responsibility when listening to someone sharing their stories. Given our work as lawyers, we were acutely aware of the power dynamics that could possibly play out with clients as well as the strict rules in which we tell “stories” in court. This workshop challenged us to think outside of these bounds.
As the workshop came to an end, we were bursting with ideas of how storytelling could be used in our own work and we’re excited to continue discussing these ideas in a monthly meeting we hope to now hold with the participants.
If you’re keen to join or learn more please feel free to contact [email protected].
Nishma Jethwa, Director at SAHR
Devika Agarwal, Member at SAHR